It’s fitting that “Nobody knows anything” got dropped as a banner slogan around here, because this year everybody knows at least one thing: Heath Ledger will be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Done deal. Fait accompli.
In a season when we’ll be stressing over all kinds of votes, one race is a virtual certainty. The same as last year when we began chanting that Cate Blanchett was guaranteed to be nominated (twice). The same way we knew that Javier Bardem would be nominated, and the strength of that role gave us solid confidence to say he’d ride the crest of that early acclaim all the way to Kodak stage. We only needed to see that performance once to know it would be next to impossible to top. It hardly mattered what movies or roles were yet to come, because there was simply no doubt. We said it last summer and stuck to our guns (and our only regret was not betting tons of money on it).
It’s time to stop waffling and step up with the same confidence this year. It’s pretty amazing to me that there are holdouts who still have reservations and misgivings about Heath Ledger even being nominated. I’m ready to take a stand and say he’s not only sure to be Oscar-nominated — he’ll win it.
Peter Finch, Spencer Tracy, and James Dean. You’ll be hearing those names propped up a lot over the next few months, as proof of many a theory. But while many experienced handicappers are busy pulling up parallel posthumous Oscar circumstances from 30 or even 50 years ago, at Awards Daily we’ll try hard to base our forecasts on data that’s not 5 decades old. Sure, it’s cute to trot out trivia about how passing away sure didn’t do much to enhance James Dean’s chances of winning, but I think we can do better than that type of old-timey Farmer’s Almanac frost-watching, don’t you?¬† Let’s look at the facts and see how close we can come to nailing this category down, after the cut.
You want some stats? Fine, but remember, in unusual cases like this, precedents are pretty flimsy pieces of the puzzle. Tracy, Dean and Finch represent such rare circumstances, isn’t that a somewhat paltry sample size on which to base a so-called “Oscar rule”? (Especially since those scant historical precursors played out with totally opposite results. (d’oh!) So what we’ll try to do in this analysis is objectively examine each posthumous nomination as a individual event — and in the process try to restore a little dignity to a situation that deserves more respect than it’s lately been given.
I mention respect, because if you read some of the superficial comparisons being made between the few actors who sadly fall into the small group of “posthumous” nominees, it almost seems as if the Oscar forecasters are failing to notice who’s better — instead placing their bets on arbitrary measurements of who’s deader.
Thus, you’ll have read many places that Peter Finch won merely because he died suddenly in the middle of the Oscar campaign, and therefore the shock of his passing was still fresh in voter’s minds as they tearfully filled out their ballots. Meanwhile, James Dean had the misfortune to be nominated for Giant nearly 20 months after his tragic car crash. So the hypothesis you’ve been hearing is that everybody had already stopped mourning his loss — so he lost. (…Seriously?)
This bizarre focus on the posthumous nominees as having nothing more in common — or having no other differentiation — than being deceased is incredibly shallow and more than a little macabre.¬† The Departed was 2 years ago, folks. Being departed or un-departed isn’t going to be a relevant factor this year. What’s relevant is the quality of the performance and the substance of the role — and that’s as true this year as it was in 1976 or 1956, as it rightfully should be, in any year before or since.
But for the sake of pinning it down more securely, let’s take a look at the posthumous nominations people keep disinterring to prove their morbid point, and see if we can’t bury this issue once and for all, so our Oscar anxieties can relax and rest in peace.
1968 - Spencer Tracy
Easiest to dismiss for lack of relevance is Spencer Tracy’s failure to win in spite of the boost some (wrongly) assume he was expected to get for being dead.¬† I say, Put down that scythe, and let’s look for another more logical reason. For one thing, Tracy was already ensconced in the Pantheon of Oscar history as a two-time winner. But more importantly: how about weighing the impact of the performance itself? in 1968, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the movie about mixed race your great-grandma could handle. And its Oscar was appropriately awarded to the Grande Dame who fit that demographic.
I’d further contend that the mere fact a piece of preachy pablum like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was nominated for any Oscar at all should indicate that Academy voters have grown up since then. If you want to use 40-year-old factoids to predict current events, then why not look back 4 decades for data to predict this year’s presidential election? 1968, when a hotly contested primary season resulted in racist segregationist George Wallace receiving 13% of the vote in the general election. (What’s that you say? Times have certainly changed? My point exactly.)
Because meanwhile, in that same year, The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were reflecting a new level of Oscar maturity. A new generation of young turks were storming the Hollywood gates. Amist the social turmoil of 1968, a truly groundbreaking movie like In the Heat of the Night must’ve hit audiences with the raw intensity of a stern slap in the face.
So let’s be real. Spencer Tracy didn’t lose in 1968 because he wasn’t there to make a speech (put in those terms, the very suggestion that this is how voters were thinking is somewhat repulsive, isn’t it?) Nope, Tracy lost because Rod Steiger blew the roof off the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. The two performances were different as… black and white. Nothing to do with being deceased or alive — Steiger’s was simply the best performance. (In fact, not to be cruel, but Tracy’s was probably the weakest and least memorable role of the 5 nominees)
See where we’re headed? If you’re still reading you’ll be seeing a trend in this analysis, and it goes like this: The Oscar for Best Performance goes to… the best performance! Radical concept, I know, but stick with me.
1955-1956 – James Dean
The biggest mistake so many Oscar predictors are making this year is by assuming someone would get a morbid Oscar bump on the basis of their tragic death. On the other side of the cointoss, there are others who seem to believe that not being around to pick up your statue is the reason the posthumous nominees usually lose. They’ll cite James Dean’s defeat when he was nominated for East of Eden (which was basically another method-riff on the same role he played in Rebel Without a Cause). But they fail to mention the other more important factor: who else was nominated.
This stuff is easy to look up. At the Oscar ceremony in 1956, Marty won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor. Personally I don’t think Marty hasn’t aged well (for that matter, neither has East of Eden) but in 1955 it was apparently a massively popular juggernaut.¬† So there you have it: Ernest Borgnine’s Marty compared to the glorified supporting role Dean played in East of Eden. Context. Not that you have any clue about the climate of that year from most Oscar soothsayers. All we get is, “See? Dean died and all he got was this crummy nomination. He didn’t win a thing for that car accident.”
Likewise the following year, March 1957 (a full 19 months after James Dean’s death) he was up against Giant co-star, Rock Hudson (vote split much?) in a role that would probably be shunted to the supporting category nowadays. Meanwhile, in a majestically dynamic and film-dominating performance (onscreen virtually every minute of the movie), Yul Brynner took home the Oscar for best actor, while ‘The King and I’ won a royal total of 5. (Also taking home 5 Oscars that night, Best Picture winner, Around the World in – Ack! – 80 Days.)
(“But Prof. Ryan, what about The Searchers? How many nominations for John Ford’s greatest film?” Silly imaginary student, what’s the Comanche word for “nada”? See me after class though. I’m liking this professor fantasy.)
1976 – Peter Finch
Finally (yay!), let’s look at the one instance in which a posthumous nomination actually prevailed and took home the prize.¬† Most Oscar experts like to call a shakeup to their little theories, “an exception to the rule.”¬† I’d propose that Peter Finch’s win is a validation of the rule: The rule of “on a level playing field, the Best Performance usually wins.”
In 1976, Finch was up against Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (seriously?), and Giancarlo Giannini for Pasqualino Settebellezze (yeah, right, as if). Toss those two to the bottom of the list, they never had a chance. Also nominated was Finch’s co-star, William Holden — who, although he was the ostensible male “lead” in Network, had nowhere near the central gravitas of Finch’s character. Not to mention the fact that he lacked any defining Wow! lines as impactful as, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not fucken gonna take it anymore!”
Wait, was there a “fucken” in that quote? Nope, I must be getting some F-word overflow bleeding through from the only performance that could’ve beat Finch in ’76. DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Now you’re all gloating and saying. “How’s that theory holding up now, Ryan? Best always wins, you say?” ok, I did say that, but it’s only fair to look at the larger Network vs Taxi Driver dicotomy in this zeitgeist equation.¬† Network, 10 nominations, 4 wins.¬† Taxi Driver, 4 nominations, went home empty handed.
Taxi Driver must’ve been like the There Will Be Blood of 1976. It was a movie too frightfully explosive to ignore — but at the same time, nobody knew exactly what to make of it.¬† My god, Scorsese didn’t even get a nomination! Who was this crazy Italian kid and why is he splattering brains all over the red carpet? (I know, now you’re saying, “A kid? Marty was 34!” yeah, I mean young compared to all the 50-year-old directors who were nominated that year, as well as Ingmar Bergman who was 110 already. Marty was young in the sense that his pubes weren’t gray.)
2008 – Heath Ledger
ok, settle down. Let’s bring this back to current 2008 relevance, shall we? It’s hard as hell to be trying to predict who’s gonna be nominated in the middle of July.¬† So how about if we match Heath Ledger up against some actual factual nominees from the past 5 years? (Who wants lists?! I do, I do!)
- 2003 Ken Watanabe – The Last Samurai
- 2004 Alan Alda – The Aviator
- 2005 Paul Giamatti – Cinderella Man
- 2006 Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls
- 2007 Philip Seymour Hoffman – Charlie Wilson’s War
- 2008 Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Who wins that contest? Is there really any doubt?
“Hey, no fair!” you’re all saying. “You picked some really weak contenders!” ok ok, stop you’re whining. I’m just saying, if those other 5 can get nominated then we know for certain Heath Ledger’s VIP slot is reserved, right? You want to see a real horse race, then how about lining up the Best Supporting Actor winners from the past 5 years:
- 2003 Tim Robbins – Mystic River
- 2004 Morgan Freeman – Million Dollar Baby
- 2005 George Clooney – Syriana
- 2006 Alan Arkin – Little Miss Sunshine
- 2007 Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men
- 2008 Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Happy now? Now I’ll ask you again, which performance among these Oscar winners is the supporting role of the decade? A lot of you will say Javier Bardem. Be that way. Personally, I’d have to go with Mr. Ledger.
No matter what alternate reality you inhabit, we have no idea who Heath Ledger will actually be up against.¬† But that hasn’t stopped people all over the web from guessing their asses off. The lists we find on some very reputable Oscar predictor sites (you know, the ones who make lists before they see all the movies) all seem to agree these actors are in the running:
- Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
- James Brolin – Milk
- Philip Seymour Hoffman – Doubt
- Liev Schreiber – Defiance
- Michael Sheen – Frost/Nixon
- Mark Strong – Body of Lies
- Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Road
- Demian Bichir – Guerrilla
- Jason Butler Harner – The Exchange
- Viggo Mortensen – Appaloosa
Those names are the best early blind guesses, and they’re roughly arranged (by me) in order of likelihood. I’d add Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road. (a name that I believe is an Awards Daily exclusive at this point [or maybe it’s not], but trust me. You’ll see.)
It’s pretty amazing to me that there are still holdouts who have reservations and misgivings about Heath Ledger being nominated. Or if they concede he’ll be nominated, they’ll try to cover their butts with reasons why he’s unlikely to win.¬† Oscar predicting sites across the web are discovering you can’t spell Heath Ledger without “hedge.”
That’s an understandable excuse. After all, except for Heath Ledger, we haven’t seen any of these performances. Maybe there’s another actor on that list who’ll make us forget all about the Joker.¬† We don’t know, and I can’t fairly ask you to guess.
But I can ask you something else, and I want you to think hard about one more hypothetical situation, ok? Please imagine this scenario a few months from now: When his name is read from the envelope next February, which of those 10 actors will receive an enormously emotional standing ovation?¬† Which friend’s acceptance speech for this history-shattering winner will make it hard for you to swallow for a few minutes? Which actor’s name being shouted out will make your eyes wet up and grab you deep in your chest, while you hug a pillow or take a swig from your Oscar-bash drink?
Think about that, visualize that moment, and then tell me Heath Ledger isn’t winning his Oscar this year.